Monday 22 January 2018

O'Donnell family's last hours in Gorse Hill

Over a late night cup of coffee on the eve of his eviction, Brian O'Donnell planned his exit, writes Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Late Tuesday night in the stunning designer kitchen at Gorse Hill, Brian O'Donnell drank one of the last cups of coffee he would enjoy in the clifftop home he had lovingly built 15 years ago with his wife, Dr Mary Patricia.

Across the kitchen table sat his pal and supporter, Jerry Beades. The large wooden dining table and the chairs they sat on were among the few bits of furniture that remained in the clifftop mansion that is at the epicentre of the O'Donnell family's battle with Bank of Ireland over a €75m debt.

There was much to discuss. Bank of Ireland has been trying to seize the Killiney mansion, worth €30m at the height of the boom and now estimated to be worth €7m or €8m, for four years. The O'Donnell family resisted at every turn, launching one legal challenge after the next.

Last March, the O'Donnell's four adult children, Bruce, Blaise, Blake and Alexandra, were ordered to vacate Gorse Hill by the High Court. So the bankrupt solicitor and his psychiatrist wife, Dr Mary Pat O'Donnell, returned from their new home in the UK to take up residence there, claiming they had a legal right to live there and sparking the Siege of Gorse Hill.

The High Court, the Court of Appeal and, finally, the Supreme Court disagreed.

At 4.30pm last Tuesday, an email pinged into Brian O'Donnell's inbox signalling they had reached the end of that legal avenue. It was a Supreme Court determination which effectively meant that the bankrupt former solicitor was not allowed to appeal an eviction order. Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell would have to be out of the fabulous clifftop house by noon the next day.

Brian O’Donnell leaves Gorse Hill for the last time
Brian O’Donnell leaves Gorse Hill for the last time
An exterior view
Campaigners from the Land League
A representative of the receiver arrives to take possession
The view from the gardens

As if that news wasn't bad enough, the fact that Brian O'Donnell was one of the last to hear it compounded the sense of injury. He had been waiting for that news all day but ended up hearing it third hand from Jerry Beades, who in turn heard it from a journalist who'd rung him looking for comment.

Within hours, the Gorse Hill Circus was back on the road, featuring the same cast of characters that starred in the original standoff that grabbed headlines last March. Many of the same photographers ranged their cameras outside the big wooden gates of the Killiney mansion for a much anticipated siege of Gorse Hill Mark Two. Twitter feeds from reporters broadcast the traffic to and from the Killiney mansion.

The same Land League campaigners, mostly people who trooped back out for another tour of duty at the clifftop house, included, of course, Jerry Beades, indebted builder, spokesman for the anti-eviction crack squad, the New Land League, and unlikely supporter of the O'Donnells.

Behind the closed gates, Brian O'Donnell planned his next move. According to sources, Mr O'Donnell had not anticipated the Supreme Court's decision. He had expected to be allowed at least to argue his case before the highest court. There was no question of himself and his wife barricading themselves in.

"He always said he would abide by the law, so there was no issue there," a source said.

He had made no provision for getting the family's remaining belongings out of the house before the noon deadline. Family friends of the O'Donnells pitched in to help. At one point, the O'Donnell's daughter, Blaise, turned up in her Mini Cooper to collect the family's two dogs with bags and shoe boxes stuffed into the back of the car.

It was after 10pm when Jerry Beades arrived to talk tactics. He sat in the kitchen with Mr O'Donnell as his family friends milled, sorting and packing things into boxes.

According to Mr Beades, they discussed practicalities such as ordering a removal truck for 6am to get the last of the furniture out, and the O'Donnell's exit strategy. They planned to leave the house early, long before the noon deadline.

Brian O'Donnell wanted to go to Bank of Ireland's annual general meeting. In a piece of coincidental timing, it was to take place at the RDS in Dublin on the same day as Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell had to vacate Gorse Hill.

"The discussions were about how Brian and Mary Pat were going to leave the house early the following morning," said Mr Beades. "Brian's intention was to go to the Bank of Ireland AGM. So that was discussed over the kitchen table, and they decided they might as well hand over the keys as well. There was discussion about who was going to hand over the keys. Brian decided to give back the keys at the AGM and that he would give them back to Richie Boucher." The bank's chief executive had personally signed many of the court documents and affidavits in the bank's case against the O'Donnells.

Then Mr Beades spotted a bunch of keys sitting on a counter top in the kitchen with tags on display.

"The tags were sitting looking at us and one of them said 'the bloody keys'. I said 'use that'," said Mr Beades, a veteran stunt orchestrator whose protests have halted evictions and auctions of distressed properties.

The Supreme Court determination has marked the end of the road in terms of the O'Donnells staying in Gorse Hill but the O'Donnells still refused to give up the fight. Brian O'Donnell had another card up his sleeve in Vico Ltd, although it remains to be seen whether it is an Ace or a joker.

The baton for the legal action has now been passed to Vico, an Isle of Man company that owns Gorse Hill and whose shareholders are the O'Donnell children. Two of them are directors. The company asserted some "facts" this weekend, confirming that it is now taking High Court action to enforce its ownership, claiming the receiver has no right to be there. Vico also claims that the property cannot be sold until the litigation is concluded.

The discussions took occupants of Gorse Hill into the early hours. There was little sleep that Tuesday night.

The removal van was due at 6am, and what remained of the furniture and the family's personal belongings had been stacked up in the hall.

"The family were basically living in the kitchen. The last of the stuff was really bedroom furniture, beds, wardrobes, the essentials needed to live, their personal belongings, clothes," said Mr Beades.

Most things of value had already been removed from the house by Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell's bankruptcy trustee, Chris Lehane. During their heyday, the O'Donnells had been astute and keen collectors, with a penchant for antique Georgian furniture, according to an inventory of their collections of furniture and antiques held in the bankruptcy office.

The couple's art and antique collection had been valued at between €5m and €7.5m, the bank claimed during one of the many court cases that have raged for the past four years. The O'Donnells dismissed these figures as "ludicrous" and "a mistake" and claimed the figure was closer to €150,000.

According to documents on file, Mr and Mrs O'Donnell said they gifted various art works to their children, and that others were part of a settlement with Bank of Ireland. He and his wife had a number of "near death" experiences, one of which involved a boating accident on Lough Corrib. After those incidents, they indicated that their significant pieces of art were to be jointly owned by their children.

Mr O'Donnell, a successful corporate lawyer, and Mary Pat, amassed their wealth from an impressive international property portfolio worth more than €1.1bn at the height of the boom. The properties included a chalet in Courcheval, the upmarket French ski resort, and Gortdrishagh House, a Victorian pile in Oughterard, Co Galway with its own private harbour, and Gorse Hill, which they redeveloped into the home it is now. After the credit crunch hit, and the couple were accused of failing to honour an agreement with Bank of Ireland, the O'Donnells moved to London and applied for bankruptcy but the bank succeeded in having them declared bankrupt in this jurisdiction in 2013. Gorse Hill was the last of their properties to be taken into the possession of Bank of Ireland.

When the removal van arrived at Gorse Hill at 6am on Wednesday, it was soon packed to the gills with beds and other "essential" bits of furniture that remained in the house. There were clothes and personal belongings. The plan had been that the van would leave, with Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell to be collected shortly afterwards by a friend. But that car was so full with belongings that there was not room for Brian O'Donnell.

By then, around half a dozen Land Leaguers showed up at Gorse Hill offering their cars and vans to remove what remained in the hall before the bank's receiver, Tom Kavanagh, arrived at noon. Jerry Beades laid on one of his trucks.

There was still a stack of legal documents relating to the O'Donnell's myriad legal cases and appeals to be boxed up and put in a van.

At 9am Jerry Beades "got an email" from Vico Ltd requesting him to get the locks changed on Gorse Hill. A little later, Mary Pat O'Donnell emerged from Gorse Hill to a blaze of cameras, in the passenger seat of a Mini Cooper driven by a friend.

She had recently told the Court of Appeal of the "harassment and devastation" visited upon her family, telling the judge: "I do not think you have grasped how stressful the intimidation we have been under by Bank of Ireland and Arthur Cox (solicitors for the bank) was".

A short time after that, Jerry Beades drove Brian O'Donnell to Fitzpatrick's Hotel down the road to get a taxi to the Bank of Ireland AGM while he returned to Gorse Hill to supervise the changing of the locks and the battalion of Land League members who stayed behind to finish off the packing of the O'Donnell's belongings.

Meanwhile, as the Bank of Ireland AGM was about to start at the RDS in Dublin, Brian O'Donnell walked up to the podium, as Richie Boucher fished in his briefcase, and tossed the keys to Gorse Hill, attached to the tag that read "the bloody keys", in front of the chief executive.

"Here are the keys to Gorse Hill you spent €9m getting," he said to Mr Boucher and returned to sit beside his son, Blake, also a solicitor, and who has worked alongside his father in their many legal actions.

Later, Mr O'Donnell told reporters he claimed to have repaid €700m to banks worldwide, and suggested "the only bank we have this sort of problem with is Bank of Ireland, who do no deals and give no answers".

Back at Gorse Hill, the receiver, Tom Kavanagh, arrived at 12.45pm.

"I shook hands with him and said 'you're late'," said Mr Beades. The Land Leaguers opened the gates of Gorse Hill with a fob to drive out their cars, Mr Beades gave his fobs to the gardai, and they drove away, leaving the house unlocked for its new occupants.

And so the saga of Gorse Hill ended with a whimper.

Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell are said to be staying with friends, and don't intend to return to London. The children are still couch-surfing. The family insist that they are not giving up.

Although he remarked last week that he achieved the "statistical impossibility" of going to court 82 times and losing 82 times, Mr O'Donnell is continuing his fight, although this time in the guise of Vico Ltd.

Mr and Mrs O' Donnell are going to the European Court of Human Rights to have their bankruptcy annulled, and to challenge the legality of the loans.

As far as Bank of Ireland is concerned, the battle is over and it has the scalp in the form of Gorse Hill to prove it.

Sunday Independent

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